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on 29 December 2005
'The Devil's Dictionary' is an interesting, very intellectually cynical collection of proposed definitions to words collected by Ambrose Gwinett Bierce, a journalist, writer, Civil War veteran, and general misanthrope, who disappeared without a trace in Mexico about 1914. In the words of H.L. Mencken, Bierce has produced 'some of the most gorgeous witticism of the English language.' Bierce delights in irreverence and poking fun at all aspects of life.
Bierce's own definition of dictionary gives some insight into his general thought patterns:
'Dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.'
This would lead us to conclude (most correctly) that Bierce is a world-class cynic. What is a cynic?
'Cynic, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision.'
Originally published under the title 'The Cynic's Word Book', most of the definitions in this book originally appeared as part newspaper columns. There have been many imitators, but this is the first and finest collection. Arranged as a dictionary, it provides an interesting writer's tool for finding a unique perspective on words and phrases. There are more than 1000 entries. A few examples include:
'Outdo, v.t., To make an enemy.'
'Universalist, n. One who foregoes the advantage of a Hell for persons of another faith.'
Fair warning -- those who do not like cynicism and scathing wit will find this book irritating, and sometimes offensive. Bierce is a product of his generation; political correctness wasn't in vogue then, and, even if it had been, Bierce would have been one of the sharpest critics.
As a Christian priest, I take great delight in the insights from Bierce's criticism of religion in general, and Christianity in particular.
'Christian, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.'
Why does this ring so true? Of course, there is the old adage that if you scratch a cynic, you'll find an idealist. Bierce would undoubtedly have described himself as a realist, but buried beneath many layers of cynicism, one can sense the idealism.
Why did Bierce go to Mexico? Perhaps his underlying idealism led him to a country that was awash in revolutionary ideas; perhaps those ideas are what cost him his life. Perhaps he went underground? It is possible we will never know.
The publisher of this volume, one of but many reprints of the text over time, says: 'The caustic aphorisms collected in "The Devil's Dictionary" helped earn Ambrose Bierce the epithets Bitter Bierce, the Devil's Lexicographer, and the Wickedest Man in San Francisco. The words he shaped into verbal pitchforks a century ago--with or without the devil's help--can still draw blood today.'
This book is very useful for generating ideas for writing and reflection. It is a good counterpoint to 'guides to positive thinking' kinds of material, and can serve as a tempering agent on such collections.